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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The CCA War on Town Staff

Council treats town employees like delinquents
By Will Collette

While most of Charlestown’s focus right now is on the high-profile campaign by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) to fire Town Administrator Bill DiLibero, there is a broader and far more dangerous game being played with town staff.

Led by CCA Town Councilors Boss Tom Gentz and Deputy Dan Slattery, the CCA is attempting to micromanage town staff, supersede collective bargaining agreements, disrupt the chain of command, impede staff from doing their jobs, create new, handpicked oversight bodies and push some staff out the door.

Council President Boss Gentz suggested the new personnel manual
should provide "progressive employee coaching"
In the past few months, the town staff have shown remarkable cohesion in responding to challenges coming from CCA-related sources.

For example, the town staff carefully reviewed the seven draft Town Charter changes being proposed by the “Charter Revision Advisory Board/Committee.” 

They then delegated Town Treasurer Pat Anderson (I hear she pulled the short straw) to go to CRAC’s February 27 hearing to explain how several of the proposed Charter changes would actually make the town more inefficient and would impede the operation of town government.

Several of the changes, such as a proposed Charter amendment to require a 5-year capital improvement plan, were instigated by CCA’s Council Vice President Deputy Dan Slattery. The town already does a five-year capital improvement plan because it is required by state law. Changing the town charter serves no useful purpose other than to satisfy Deputy Dan’s compulsion to micromanage town staff.

Deputy Dan wants to change the Town Chotta
Similarly, a proposal to change the Charter to institute a complex, multilayered bidding and acquisition process made little sense, especially since the Charter was just changed in 2010 to set up the current system.

But did CRAB/CRAC listen to the suggestions formed from all of that experience? Not so much.

The town staff again needed to work as a team to address the Town Council’s draft of a new Personnel Manual. Town Staff attended the Council’s Special March 26 meeting to address language in the Manual that is already addressed in either staff collective bargaining agreements or state law.

They presented the Council with a long list of sections of the Manual that were inconsistent with either existing contracts or state law, and gently urged the Council to either modify or drop inconsistent language.

It was a long and arduous process. At the end of it, several staff members expressed their thanks to the Council for listening and being willing to accommodate the staff on these issues.

This earned the Council a laudatory article in the Westerly Sun, “’Shadow of hostility and fear’ lifted in Charlestown.” The title refers to remarks by Town Department of Public Works Director Alan Arsenault to the Council when the Council agreed to strike “at-will employment” from the Personnel Manual.

Uncle Fluffy blew it
But Boss Gentz couldn’t simply take a bow and leave it at that. He told the Sun it didn’t matter that the Council took “at-will” out of the manual since “It doesn’t hurt anybody to take it out, it was just there to explain the [state] law.” So, in Gentz's view, the concession to the staff was meaningless because he believes state law (not the staff's contracts) will rule.

Gentz also said during the March 26 meeting that he expects the Town Council’s new Personnel Manual would set the standard for the terms and conditions of the town employees’ contracts. 

Gentz is wrong on both points. The language of town staff's contracts prevails over general "at-will employment" language in state law. And the Personnel Manual does not dictate the terms that will be in present or future town employee collective bargaining agreements. That's why it's called collective bargaining.

This kind of naïve statement is to be expected from a guy whose 30 years of experience as an insurance industry executive gave him no experience in dealing with unions or collective bargaining agreements.

Whatever warm glow the March 26 meeting generated was extinguished by the April 9 Town Council meeting when town staff and the Council once again found themselves at loggerheads over the Council majority’s desire to micromanage the way town staff conduct fundraising to bring extra revenue into the town.

Outside grants and donations support many of Charlestown’s programs and cover portions of many of the staff members’ salaries.

Charlestown's tank - that's NOT Chief Shippee
Last summer, when I wrote about the Charlestown Police Department’s “tank,” I reported on Chief Jack Shippee’s remarkable talent at hustling free equipment, supplies, goods and furniture, including the town’s armored personnel carrier, two military-grade Humvees, ATVs, the harbormaster’s boat and much more.

The last time I met with Chief Shippee and sat in his office, I admired his very impressive hardwood desk. He knocked on it and said, “Got this for free from Washington Trust when they were buying new executive furniture.” When he showed me around the station, it seemed like every room had something that was donated to the town. 

Town staff are constantly searching for funding sources to supplement town taxpayer funds. Indeed, under the Town Charter, C-43.M, it is the duty of the Town Administrator and delegated staff to seek out and secure outside grants to support town activities. The Charter not only allows the Town Administrator to delegate authority (but not responsibility) but requires him to do so.

Additionally, the Charter also encourages the Economic Improvement Commission to seek outside funding and actually requires the Wastewater Management Commission to seek outside funding. .

The Council is currently considering curtailing the Administrator’s and his staff’s ability to raise money by requiring them to obtain Town Council permission first. And if one of the proposed Charter changes recommended by the Charter Revision Advisory Committee is adopted, any grant that is obtained in partnership with another entity – as many of the town’s federal grants are funded – would require a long and arduous public process before the grant proposal is submitted.

Since most grants come with finite, short deadlines, such a Council decision or Charter revision (or both) would effectively end the town’s ability to raise a substantial amount of outside funds. This would result either in an increase in the town property tax or a reduction in town programs.

A case-in-point is the much-maligned grant for sports field lighting in Ninigret Park. The record shows (as a fellow citizen likes to say) that Jay Primiano saw an opportunity to apply for the now vilified sports lighting grant. He discussed the idea with the Parks & Recreation Commission on October 25 and got their approval to start working on the grant. 

The grant application was due on November 30, so Primiano notified the Town Council on November 17 that he would have to submit the grant by November 30. He made it perfectly clear that the application would be withdrawn if the Council did not approve it after the submission.

Then, starting at the December 12 Council meeting, all hell broke out. The Council majority started vilifying Primiano for having the nerve to submit a grant without authorization. At the December 12 meeting Lisa DiBello stated that “this is the first time I’ve heard of it.” I don’t know what happened to her copy of the November 17 memo, but perhaps the problem has to do with her spotty attendance record, or her preoccupation with DiBello v. Charlestown, her lawsuit against the Town.

The treatment of Primiano for working on this grant at the request of the Parks and Recreation Commission, and DiLibero for supporting and encouraging him, certainly sent a chilling message to the rest of town hall staff.

To understand what this action could mean, here is a short list of grants that were awarded to the town before the Council voted to approve them:

  • October 14, 2003-Accepted grant from Dept of Elderly Affairs
  • December 8, 2003-Accepted RI Emergency Management grant- $5,000
  • April 26, 2004-Accepted grant for Community Emergency Response Team training -$5,000
  • August 10, 2004-Acceptance for police grant for National Night Out
  • September 27, 2004- Acceptance of the Homeland Security grant- $132,291
  • December 13, 2004-Acceptance of RIDEM grant-$25,000
  • March 14, 2005-Acceptance of RI Dept of Elderly affairs grant- $10,000
  • April 11, 2005-Accepted National Criminal History Improvement project grant- $31,550
  • May 9, 2005-Accepted grant from RI Justice Commission's Crime Prevention Planning Committee -$1,000
  • October 11, 2005-Accepted 3 RIEMA grants- total $29,000
  • November 14, 2005- Accepted 4 police grants-total $26,195
  • August 15, 2006-Accepted tennis court grant -$40,000
Town staff members know that Charlestown is very frugal about town expenditures. It’s one of the main reasons why our town tax rate is so low – we try to pay for as little as possible in the way of town services. The Budget Commission (and Deputy Dan) scrutinizes every nickel spent and questions why it can’t be cut to two cents.

And it's not just grants. Chief Shippee described to me how he has a network of contacts so he can find out when surplus property becomes available. To get this stuff, you have to move very fast and Chief Shippee has clearly gotten very good at it. If the Town Council wants to approve these acquisitions first, then in all likelihood, no more free stuff.

Jay Primiano, likewise, is constantly coming up with donated goods and services to supplement his budget for activities especially at Ninigret Park. Now that he and every other member of the town staff have to walk on eggshells for fear that they might be the next target of the Town Council majority, expect those donations to dry up.

For the town to meet the needs and interests of town citizens, just about every town staff member has learned how to hustle for grants and donations of cash, goods and services. But if the Town Council is so suspicious, indeed paranoid, about the town staff that they want to be notified in advance, then expect the town staff to be less than enthusiastic about seeking those grants and gifts.

If the Council continues to treat staff efforts as if every grant application is a subversive plot, then the Council will have to deal with the consequences of a lot fewer grant applications. Higher taxes. Fewer services. Terrible staff morale. Maybe even lay-offs.

Boss Gentz, Deputy Dan and Lisa DiBello will have a lot to answer for if they persist in treating town employees like delinquents who cannot be trusted to do their jobs without constant supervision – by them – not by their supervisors or the Town Administrator.